Red or grey – is it black or white?

I’m not a red squirrel biologist but as I understand it, this is pretty much the situation as it stands with the species’ conservation: Red squirrels in the UK occupy only fragments of their former range with their remaining stronghold being the pine forests of northern Scotland. The primary reason for their decline is believed to be the introduction of the non-native grey squirrel which has spread and out-competes the red as well as passing on a potentially fatal disease. Where embattled and cornered red squirrels are threatened by the ongoing invasion of greys, conservation action is being taken primarily in the form of grey squirrel ‘management’ (aka culling). Is that it in a nutshell? No doubt someone will tell me if not.

Assuming my simple analysis is correct, here’s my question: Is it feasible, or desirable even, to defend red squirrel strongholds in the long term by fending off greys? How long can we keep this up for – 5 years, 50 years? 500 years? My understanding is that we’ll need to keep this up forever if we’re to retain red squirrels as a viable UK species.

Here’s my next question then: Is this a good use of time, effort and funding? Nobody wants to see red squirrels disappear (nobody I know at any rate) but surely we face a stark choice if we accept that the present regime is untenable:

1. We succumb to the relentless march of the grey and accept the extinction of UK reds.

2. We invest our energies in completely eliminating grey squirrels from the UK.

Option 2 has many barriers. It’s expensive, time consuming and some would argue impossible to completely eradicate grey squirrels such is their stranglehold (I would personally suggest it’s difficult but not impossible). Then there’s the question of societal sensitivities – for many people, grey squirrels provide their only contact with nature and never having seen a red squirrel, form part of their cultural backdrop. Finally there is a moral argument that challenges the need to kill any healthy animal regardless of origin.

So with all doors presently closed, we have no choice but to carry on as we are. But didn’t we already establish that wasn’t feasible?

I don’t know the answer to this dilemma by the way, but I do know that trying to marry political and cultural sensitivities with ecological integrity is at best, damned tricky and as a consequence we tend to tread the ground that upsets fewest (human) agendas – the sticking plaster approach. In my humble opinion with the consequences of indecision now well documented, the sticking plaster is no longer good enough: we’re talking major surgical procedure here.

What would you do if you held the keys to the piggy bank (or to the gun cupboard)?

An engine without oil?

I’ve recently read two very interesting pieces – the first specifically about wolves; the second, a book about the impact of predators on global ecosystems.

A friend of mine sent me a very well pitched report he’d written following a visit to Norway to follow a hugely controversial wolf hunt. In it he describes both extreme hatred and fear for this most symbolic of animals, amidst a rural community that whilst in the minority in terms of national feelings towards wolves, are nevertheless vocal and committed. My friend is himself an experienced game manager so knows about Scottish wildlife politics, but even he says: “I have never experienced such an atmosphere. For many there, an evil had been cleansed from the valley.” This following the shooting of a large male wolf.

Another friend sent me a book (which I would heartily recommend) called Where the wild things were by William Stolzenburg. In it Stolzenburg documents scientific research not into the impact of large carnivores as such, but the ecological chaos found in their absence. Stolzenburg, an American wildlife journalist, offers a convincing science-based argument that alpha predators are the primary regulators of the world’s ecosystems and that their removal, far from being a good thing for unburdened prey, provides the building blocks for long-term ecological decline. Space doesn’t allow for examples – buy the book and listen to the penny dropping. It’s compelling stuff.

I’m often asked about my feelings towards wolves and whether I think they should be returned to Scotland. It’s far from a black and white issue, but it really comes down to whether you answer the question as a rural economist, or as an ecologist. The wolf hunt in Norway underlines a seemingly unbridgeable gulf between prioritising traditional rural practice, and a new and increasingly popular paradigm based on ecosystem health. Like my friend who followed the Norwegian hunt, it’s tough when you can see both sides, and I can. The only caveat to me having the fence well and truly wedged in my nether regions with one foot either side of it, is that if I look 100 years hence, I sometimes wonder whether we will ultimately pay the price of an ecological engine running without oil.